Though Matthew Ward was crowned back-to-back School Spelling-Bee Champion in the third and fourth grades, his childhood passed with little international distinction. He went on to attend the University of Southern California, where he studied graphic design and cinema, then fittingly became the art director for a cinematography magazine. He does not usually refer to himself in the third person.
For what age audience do you write?
I write for kids 8 to 12 (and anyone who ever was 8 to 12) in the “fantastical, but not quite fantasy” genre, which I just made up just now. (Other entries in the genre include: ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ by Roald Dahl, ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ by Lemony Snicket, ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’ by Joan Aiken.)
Henry: Preternatural? Semi-fantasy?
Tell us about your latest book.
‘The Fantastic Family Whipple’ is the story of Arthur Whipple, the only non-record breaker in the Most World-Record-Breaking Family on Earth. But despite his failures, he just might be their only hope. When the Whipples suffer a series of catastrophes that appear to stem from a mysterious family curse (and a pair of sinister clowns), it is up to Arthur to solve the mystery and save his family from impending doom—as he struggles all the while to earn his first world record and prove himself worthy of the Whipple name…
Henry: Clowns. It’s always the clowns…
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
On top of being entertained, I hope readers might be inspired by Arthur’s determination and compassion. And also that they might develop a craving for giant French toast.
Henry: My fantasy book ‘Nimpentoad’ is also about determination. But, sadly, while it does feature, goblins, trolls, and even a giant, it does not feature giant French toast. Damnit. That’s what sequels are for.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Coming up with all the words. (Sometimes I feel like I’ve used up every combination of words I can possibly conceive of and will never be able to write anything ever again.) This is especially a challenge for me with action scenes and transitions. I could write dialogue all day long, but give me an action scene or a transition between locations and my writing slows to a crawl (or at least a slower crawl than usual). I think part of the reason is that with dialogue, you’re essentially describing something as it happens in real time, but with action you have to cram in lots of details that are all happening at once and try to make it feel like its happening in real time. Transitions are similar in that you’re trying to sum up a series of events (like moving your characters from one place to another) into as short a sequence as possible. Because there is so much more happening in every second of action, each thought takes that much longer for my brain to translate into words. Faster, brain—faster!
Henry: Interesting. I find writing voicey dialog more challenging than writing action scenes.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
I’ve learned that, though they are basically invisible, words are as real as anything in this world. This is easy to forget, however, when you spend years of your life making words, instead of say, building furniture or designing cars or mining coal. (It does help if somebody actually pays you for those words at some point. Because, either that person has purchased an actual product from you, or you have totally tricked that person into giving you money for something that doesn’t exist. Either way, you’re a winner.)
Henry: It’s like you’re writing software for other people’s brains. Well played, sir.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
I probably would never have moved back into my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house with my wife and dog and all our furniture. That was memorable.
Henry: Hmmm, I’m not sure writer poverty experience was what I was going for here…
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
1. Make a list of books you love to read. Set out to write one you can add to that list.
2. Start writing. Create a new computer document or insert a piece of paper in the typewriter or open your notebook—and then put words in it.
3. Keep writing. Sit in front of your computer for hours and hours or years and years or as long as it takes.
4. Finish writing. Write “The End” on something. Then ask yourself if it belongs on the list you created in step one. (Be honest.) If not, go back and keep working on it until it does. (It might help at this point to get a third-party opinion from someone whose judgment you trust and who is not your mom.) When you can answer yes, the important part is over. Now you just have to go find somebody else whose list it belongs on…
Henry: But wait. My mom LOVES my writing…
Do you have any favorite quotes?
I wrote this one down after hearing it on the HBO show Real Sports, of all places. It’s from the late co-founder of NFL Films, Steve Sabol, on the importance of storytelling:
“Tell me a fact and I’ll remember; tell me the truth and I’ll believe; but tell me a story and it’ll live in my heart forever.”
I think that about sums it up.
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
I have this really strange ritual where I repeatedly put coffee in my mouth and swallow it.
Also, I’ve found I work best when I’m around other people who are being forced to work against their will. This includes students, businesspeople, booksellers, baristas, café workers, and other writers
Luckily, cafés and coffee shops can fulfill both of these writing needs at the same time
Henry: Interesting. I find there to be too many distractions if I try to write in public.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Being able to slow time. Then I could increase my writing pace from a quarter-of-a-novel per year to twenty novels per year and go laugh in James Patterson’s face, like he insists on doing to me now.
Henry: Or, you could wish for that power’s evil opposite: to slow down James Patterson.
If you could have three authors (alive or dead) over for dinner, who would it be?
C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and all the other Inklings. (I mean, if we’re bringing people back from the dead here, why stop at just three?) It still boggles my mind to think that two of the world’s greatest fantasy writers were friends who regularly hung out together. (I probably wouldn’t have them over for dinner, though. I’d rather just sit in the corner of the pub and listen to them talk—and be the envy of nerds everywhere.)
Henry: Superb choices. Both those authors had a profound impact on me. C.S. Lewis also wrote one of the clearest and most logical analysis of religion I’ve ever read – ‘Mere Christianity’. For the non-Tolkien fanatics, the Inklings were his writing group. Maybe I can come write with you at a Starbucks and we can form a writing group, the Java Beans.
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
Hard to beat a chimera—a fire-breathing, three-headed monster with the head of a lion, a serpent, and a goat. (Come to think of it, though, the goat seems a bit out of place there. Not really the fiercest animal on the planet, is it? Probably gets teased by the lion and serpent heads all the time. Poor chimera goat head.)
Henry: Yes, it’s really not that well put-together of a monster. In Yiddish, we’d say it’s ongepotchket. Yiddish has nothing to do with mythology, but the words are so much fun to say.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I occasionally like to eat food and listen to records and watch movies and go places (not necessarily all at once). But my favorite thing is playing with my two sons, Henry (3) and Miles (5 months). (To be fair, Miles usually gets played on or played around at this point. Keep growing, buddy!) Some of our record-attempting activities can be viewed here: fantasticfamilywhipple.com/videos
Henry (adult): I’ve observed this amazing phenomenon with young siblings, so let me know if it happens with your boys. Before the younger one can speak intelligibly to adults, the older sibling will understand what he’s saying. It’s like he becomes a juvenile translator
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
His body was never found.
Where can readers find your work?
Wherever books are sold. And probably propping open a few doors somewhere. My website is www.fantasticfamilywhipple.com
Henry: Ladies and gentlemen, Matt Ward, writer of entertaining and practical books.
This interview is also posted to the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.